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The Best Christmas Music You’ve Never Heard: Goosebumps Guaranteed

Susan E. Wills - published on 12/16/14

The despair and gloom of a sinful world gives way to an explosion of hope and unbridled joy

I was once a nominal Catholic, but even then I never stopped "celebrating" Christmas—at least all the traditions and trappings. The stupendous event of Christ’s coming to Earth remained in the background, its significance unexamined and unnoted while the charming glow of Christmases past and present remained.

If there are any Christians among our readers who find themselves so preoccupied with the traditions and trappings, the lights and the carols, that they haven’t set aside the time to examine the meaning of the Nativity, it’s not too late. Today, I offer you a bit of inspiration to get started: Alfred Reed’s magnificent “Russian Christmas Music.”

Reed called music "the greatest of all the communicative arts," and "Russian Christmas Music" is Exhibit A. It begins with the mournful sounds of a world mired in sin, without joy or hope. In the final strains of the closing movement, when the Son of God has broken through eternity into time, when He’s left his throne in heaven to assume our mortal flesh, and the angelic host fill the sky proclaiming the miracle of Christ’s birth, the music swells to a glorious crescendo of pealing bells, thundering percussion, and brass. This is the kind of music that captures the awesome wonder of Christ’s Incarnation and birth, and it is guaranteed to give you goosebumps.

There’s a fascinating story behind the composition, explained on Music Program Notes. In 1944, Reed was doing his military service with the Army Air Corps Band and only 23 years old—

when he was called upon to create what has become a masterpiece of the wind literature. It was in 1944, when optimism was running high with the successful invasion of France and Belgium by the Allied forces. A holiday band concert was planned by the city of Denver to further promote Russian-American unity with premiers of new works from both countries. … The Russian work was to have been Prokofiev’s March, Op. 99, but [the music director] discovered that it had already been performed in the United States … . With just 16 days until the concert, … Reed [was asked] to compose a new Russian work for the concert. Scouring the Corps’ music library, Reed found an authentic 16th-century Russian Christmas Song “Carol of the Little Russian Children” to use for an introductory theme. Drawing on his investigations of Eastern Orthodox liturgical music for other thematic ideas, he completed the score of Russian Christmas Music in 11 days; copyists took another two days to prepare parts for rehearsal. The music was first performed on December 12, 1944, on a nationwide NBC broadcast. A concert performance was given in Denver two days later. 

Words, of course, can fall short of conveying the meaning of the mystery of God’s love for mankind and his coming to dwell among us to win our salvation. At the beginning of "The Gospel of Life," Pope St. John Paul II reminds us of two essential points:

"By his incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every human being." … This saving event reveals to humanity not only the boundless love of God who "so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (Jn 3:16), but also the incomparable value of every human person (no. 2).

By taking on our flesh – becoming human in all things but sin – Jesus ennobled all human life. Our dignity derives from the truth that God created us in his image, and loves us to the point of becoming man, suffering and dying to win our redemption, and thus allowing the Holy Spirit to dwell in us.

Today, this understanding of human dignity is undermined by a materialist and dualistic view of the human person. Many regard the human body as something we inhabit, having no intrinsic value, except as a means of enjoying sensual pleasures. But once a body becomes burdensome or causes suffering, the growing view is that we have a right to dispose of it. Just last week, French President Fran

çois Hollande urged that "terminal sedation" be legalized. This means sedating patients deeply enough so that they (presumably) will not be aware of the unbearbale pain of being dehydrated or starved to death.

How one understands the human person – as an insignificant bit player in the drama of one’s life or as a creature loved by God, a unity of body and soul who will live eternally – affects one’s behavior toward others. We can be dismissive of those who don’t contribute to our immediate happiness or we can see them through God’s eyes.

As C.S. Lewis explained in "The Weight of Glory:"

The dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. … There are no ordinary people. … Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ … is truly hidden. 

At Christmas gatherings, in long checkout lines, and in crowded parking lots, let’s remember that Christ lives in the people around us. Let’s celebrate Christmas with profound gratitude that through his Incarnation and birth, Jesus showed us the meaning of love and the priceless value of every human life.

Susan Wills
is a senior writer for Aleteia’s English language edition.

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